Illegal immigration across the U.S.-Mexico border tumbled in September, officials said Tuesday, saying the administration has solved the migration crisis by stopping Central Americans before they ever reach the border.
The U.S. still posted the worst overall year in more than a decade, with the Border Patrol apprehending about 850,000 illegal immigrants in fiscal 2019, which ended Sept. 30. Officers at the ports of entry encountered about 125,000 more unauthorized migrants, for a combined illegal immigrant population of nearly 1 million.
But the surge that fueled those numbers has dissipated. The 144,000 people nabbed at the border in May fell to 52,546 migrants in September.
“This is an unprecedented achievement,” Mark Morgan, acting commissioner at Customs and Border Protection, told reporters as he announced the numbers at the White House.
The yardsticks showed improvement across the board.
At one point CBP was detaining 5,000 people a day. That’s now 1,700.
And CBP had 19,000 people in custody at one point. They were held in processing facilities built to hold between 4,000 and 5,000. The number is now less than 4,000, Mr. Morgan said.
He said the improvements came with little help from Congress, which approved money to help improve some detention conditions but has been unable to pass legislation to stem the flow of people.
Instead, it was the Trump administration that took steps, signing agreements with the three Central American countries most responsible for the flow of illegal immigrant families, and working with Mexico to try to prevent folks from reaching the U.S. border.
One major move was the administration’s Migration Protection Protocols, dubbed the “Remain in Mexico” program, which takes would-be asylum seekers who crossed through Mexico en route to the U.S. and sends them back across the border to wait while their cases are heard in the U.S.
Immigration activists said the president’s policies have come at the expense of migrants’ rights and relations with international partners.
“Trump has cut aid, bullied neighbors, caged kids, separated families, gutted asylum, truncated or eliminated due process and forced refugees back to dangerous conditions in northern Mexico. It has led to a human rights catastrophe at our border,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice.
He said the administration should treat the surge of people as a refugee challenge, not an illegal immigration crisis.
But he said that’s not a path this White House can take.
“For Trump, Stephen Miller and the DHS leadership, cruelty is the point,” he said.
Mr. Morgan, speaking at the White House, angrily rejected suggestions that the Migration Protection Protocols are creating a dangerous situation.
He said the United Nations is monitoring affairs and helping migrants in the MPP return to their home countries if they want to give up on their claims or feel unsafe waiting in Mexico.
MPP and the other agreements with Central American nations have changed the incentive structure that was drawing the surge of migrants, the commissioner said. Before, migrants knew if they reached U.S. soil and arrived with a child, they likely could get quick release and could spend years burrowing into society while awaiting a court date for their immigration hearing.
Being made to wait in Mexico, or even stopped by Latin American authorities beforehand, turns that equation on its head, he said.
Mr. Morgan said he still would like to see Congress pass legislation to make permanent changes to remove incentives for illegal immigration.
And he defended Mr. Trump’s continued push for additional miles of border wall.
The administration has built 71 miles of wall, though all of it is replacement for existing barriers. No new miles of the border have been fenced in since Mr. Trump took office, the commissioner acknowledged.
He said that’s about to change, with more than 100 new miles of border about to be walled in Texas over the next 15 months.
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